Michigan State Prison

April 15, 2014; Bridge Magazine (via MLife)

The research in the Kaiser Family Foundation’s analysis of state government expenditures nationally points to a disturbing trend in the state of Michigan. According to the data, Michigan devotes more money toward its correctional institutions than it does toward its institutions of higher learning. The issue has the cash-strapped state thinking about potential solutions, including ideas that operate against traditional political viewpoints.

According to an article originally published in Bridge Magazine and reprinted on mLive, an online Michigan periodical, the issue has “conservatives and liberals alike…saying it is a price Michigan can no longer afford.” The policy reforms being considered by both sides include reducing sentencing guidelines for many non-violent crimes, changes in parole procedures, and release of some sick and elderly prisoners to reduce the costs of expensive mental health and medical care costs.

Rep. Joe Haveman, a Republican representing the conservative Holland district and strong advocate for prison reform, stated, “We’ve locked up people for a long time. I don’t believe we’ve created safer communities.” Haverman’s position is backed up by a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust which states that Michigan’s rate of incarceration dropped 12 percent between 2007 and 2012. During the same period, crime fell 17 percent. Locking up prisoners does not necessarily correspond to lower rates of crime. Additionally, the Michigan Department of Corrections says that the 10 most costly prisoners in the state averaged more than $220,000 in healthcare or mental health expenses in 2013, or a total of $2.2 million.

While the trend is toward more support for prison reform, there are those who hold true to traditional notions of crime and punishment, including current Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. In an op-ed written for the Detroit Free Press entitled “Why Juvenile Lifers Need to Stay Behind Bars,” Schuette argues that reducing sentencing “would be penalizing and punishing the family (of crime victims). And they have suffered enough.” Rather than cutting costs through sentence reductions, Schuette believes that Michigan should reduce the wages of corrections employees and the cost of services to meet budget needs.

The issue brings out the passion of many on both sides of the argument. Those who favor stronger sentencing cite cases like that of the late Willie C. Rice, a Michigan man who was killed while frying fish. Parolee Derrick Hewlett was one of two men convicted in the murder; Hewlett had been paroled a year before killing Rice, having served just 20 months of a 20-year sentence.

Haveman understands the challenges, but states, “You can’t ever say that nothing bad is going to happen. When we’ve determined that someone has paid their debt to society, we have to be willing to take a risk and let them out.”—John Brothers